November 2020 Open Book Group – The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Thank you, Kevin, for moderating The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power.

Can we change the world by our actions? In The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power indefatigably proclaims “yes we can”.

After graduating from Yale in 1993 Power travel to Bosnia as a war correspondent covering the Yugoslav war. She experienced first-hand how America’s intervention had prevented the genocide of thousands of Bosnians by the Serbs On her return she gained a J.D.from Harvard and remained there as a Professor. Her research focussed on how first-world democracies should respond to genocides through their foreign policies. By the age of 33, she had written the Pulitzer Prize-winning, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

In 2005 Senator Barack Obama sought her out and she served in his office as a foreign policy advisor. She continued in this role during his 2008 Presidential campaign. She had to resign during the primaries when she was caught off record referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster”  In 2009 President Obama appointed her to a position on the National Security Council and in 2013 she became the youngest U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a cabinet-rank position. For the next eight years, she championed issues such as United Nations reform, women’s rights and LGBT rights, religious freedom and religious minorities, refugees, human trafficking, human rights and the fight for independence in countries from Sudan to Myanmar. She was influential in America’s responses to the Ebola outbreak, the re-emergence of a muscular Russia in Crimea and Ukraine and the genocide by Gadaffi of his countrymen in Libya.

While her memoir gives the reader insights into the working of these offices Power also tracks her personal story. Born in Dublin in 1970, her mother was a doctor and her father a dentist. Unfortunately, he spent more time filling up with pints of Guinness at his local bar than filling dentures. The Education of an Idealist opens with her mother in court divorcing her husband and successfully gaining custody of Samantha and her brother, Steve. A highly unusual result in conservative 1970’s Ireland.

Her mother wished to expand her medical career so the trio emigrated to America when Power was nine, leaving her father behind. While Power quickly adapted to her new life, helped by her considerable sporting progress (is there anything this woman can’t do?!) the guilt of leaving her father, and the thought that she could have prevented his early death from alcoholism, haunted her for years. She suffered from debilitating anxiety attacks as well as a series of failed relationships with unsuitable men. When she met Cass Sunstein a Harvard Law Professor, she embarked on extensive therapy to address her childhood traumas. They entered into a fulfilling marriage, giving birth to her two children in her early 40s.

Naturally, we all agreed Power was an inspirational woman. A couple of members confessed to being moved to tears by her passionate defence of those being brutalised around the world.  At 500 plus pages The Education of an Idealist appeared as daunting as Power, but her easy flowing journalist style, opening with an account of her childhood, soon had us all hooked.

We respected her honesty in showing her character flaws as well as the considerable challenges of working 24/7 at the U.N. while bringing up young children. Some of us questioned the effect this may have on the children – the perennial guilt-laden question for working women. Marie, the much loved live-in nanny, was able to provide stability which was a major factor in family life allowing Power and Sunstein to perform at highest levels of government and academia.

We were fascinated to learn so much detail about the inner workings of government, for example, to put out a “simple” resolution, or to vet a speech President Obama was to make to the U.N., involved months of diplomatic efforts and endless drafts and re-drafts.

We also noted how bottom-up the government administration was. Senior foreign policy advisors brief was to look round the world and advise the Senator/President Obama on hot spots where he /America should take action. Power had been instrumental in bringing the genocide in Darfur to Senator Obama’s, and then the world’s, attention.

Similarly, when Power was at the U.N. she interviewed other Ambassadors with a “how can America help you? ” opening line, bringing forward previously unseen atrocities to the President’s attention e.g. the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Her hawkish leanings that America should use its military might to quash genocides increasingly clashed with President Obama’s policy that America’s might should only be used when America’s interests were threatened. Obama supported the U.N. calls to intervene in Libya, but the subsequent vacuum of political leadership and structure had him wary of entering militarily into the Syrian crisis. Powers views than intervention would save lives sometimes blinded her to the wider geopolitical reality. We did note that at the end of the memoir she was more reflective about her views……the education of an idealist.

She showed there were real people behind the U.N. One member was particularly taken with her relationships with Vitaly Churkin, the Russian U.N. ambassador. She invited him to her home for Thanksgiving and enjoyed his company. However, on the world stage, they traded barbs, such as clashing over Russia’s denial of involvement in Ukraine etc.

One member commented that she did find the constant reference to America being the greatest country in the world a bit nauseating. Certainly, Power’s experience of being an immigrant and wonderful opportunities America had afforded her coloured her views. We noted that her memoir gave no insights into America itself. It was telling that on the night of the 2016 presidential election Power watched the count unfold with a group of other high-powered women, such as Susan Rice, ready to celebrate big time the first woman President. Her disbelief at the outcome showing that she, like the rest of the Obama administration, had missed what was happening in her own backyard.

She was very open about relationships with her family, but we observed there was little about those with her mother. Her mother is an equally high achiever working long hours as a kidney transplant specialist. We wondered if Power had bowed to a request for privacy here.

We referenced (the oddly titled) Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measure): True Stories from a War Zone by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, Andrew Thomson (OBG April 2010)  recounting the experiences of three U.N. workers posted in the field. One member recalled The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler (OBG Feb 2020). She expressed her delight in having learnt so much from both Power and Hessler’s memoirs. More books like these on our list, please!

Many recommend the Netflix documentary The Final Year which follows President Obama and his foreign policy team, including Power, through 21 nations as they craft his diplomatic legacy.

……and all this before we moved to a discussion of this week’s breaking news in America. Perfect timing for OBGers to tackle a remarkable book about a remarkable woman’s experience at the highest level of the U.S. political system.


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